Increased efforts by Customs to crack down on illicit tobacco vendors could unwittingly putting stores at increased risk of burglary, retailers have warned.

A number of large scale seizures of illicit stock have been reported in the last few weeks, however, fears are mounting that with their supply routes barred, desperate criminals might increasingly turn to legitimate stores for their supplies.

Belfast retailer Phillip O’Brien has suffered two burglaries in the space of a week with an estimated £8,500 worth of cigarettes stolen between both occasions.

He believes that thieves under pressure from Customs are resorting to more extreme measures. “With Customs targeting gangs for the counterfeit cigarettes. These people are now turning their eyes towards retailers like ourselves because their own sources are drying up,” said Phillip. “They are trying to get tobacco from other sources - and people like ourselves are vulnerable now.”

Last week three masked men threatened staff before making off with £6,000 worth of cigarettes from the Coombe Hill Service Station near Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire. A female employee was also injured during a raid in a Co-op shop in Cullingworth, Bradford in which a large quantity of Lambert & Butler and Richmond cigarettes were stolen.

Northern Ireland Retail Trade Association chief executive Glyn Roberts warned store owners to be extra vigilant. “We urge any retailer who sells tobacco to urgently review the security of their store,” he added.

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